In 1543, when the first Qutb Shahi ruler of Golconda was stabbed to death, one of his sons fled to Vijayanagar to save himself from his parricide brother. For seven years, he lived in exile at this Hindu court, before coming home after the death of his murderous sibling. What followed was a phenomenal reign: the new Qutb Shah Teluguized his name from Ibrahim to Abhirama, patronized poetry on the Mahabharat, produced 30 children of his own (two of whom he put to death for plotting against him, fearing his father’s fate), and inaugurated an era of prosperity and splendour (despite, that is, the general violence of his age). Golconda’s ports attracted merchants from the world over, while its mines threw up diamonds in heaps, and by the time Ibrahim went to the grave in 1580, he was lord of one of the richest realms in India.

But the Qutb Shah—who once also compared the moustaches of his enemies to the pubic hair of “public women"—was never fully pleased with life in his old fort. He tried first to build an unwalled city towards the west. But when want of water aborted the enterprise, he constructed a bridge over the Musi river and looked instead to the east. His death meant that it was his heir, Muhammad Quli, who actually realized Ibrahim’s dream, founding what is today the city of Hyderabad—the latest place to attract the zeal of that special kind of politician anxious to rename great cities of the past instead of confronting challenges in the present. Hyderabad, either way, was only one of many feathers in Muhammad Quli’s cap. As a patron of the arts too he was substantial, authoring a celebrated collection of works called Kulliyat that covers everything from kabbadi to the festival of Basant Panchami.

Hyderabad, however, was an ambitious project and from early on seems to have attracted the envy of the Qutb Shah’s rivals. Fourteen thousand shops and public buildings were envisioned in the new city, with the magnificent Char Minar built over its central crossroads. The palace was a sensation, said to exceed any contemporary Mughal building—seven or eight floors high, with interiors studded with gems and gold. “A citie that for sweetnesse of ayre, conveniencie of water, and fertility of soyle, is accounted the best situated in India," is how the English merchant William Methwold described it, while the French traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier thought the bridge “scarcely less beautiful than Pont Neuf at Paris". Indeed, what the Qutb Shah envisioned in Hyderabad was not only a city unparalleled by rival capitals, but a “replica of paradise" itself.

The founding romance of Hyderabad is a story repeated by every tour guide in the vicinity. One day, we are told, when Muhammad Quli was out riding, he encountered a woman of exceptional beauty. Her name was Bhagmati, and having married her, he decided to name his new urban project Bhagnagar. Later, when she was styled Hyder Mahal, the city became Hyderabad. The story is certainly old—we have the contemporary Mughal poet Faizi writing to Akbar that the place commemorates “a hardened whore"—but it is unlikely that it reflects fact. Hyderabad celebrates Ali (also called Hyder, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin), who was venerated by the Shia Qutb Shahs (whose Shiism was also lambasted by Faizi), and while coins record both Hyderabad and Golconda, no mention occurs of Bhagnagar. Indeed, Muhammad Quli, who catalogued the names of his 17 beloved ladies, himself evidently makes no mention of Bhagmati, and in the Kulliyat, the city he founded is always referred to as Hyderabad.

What is more likely, as the historian H.K. Sherwani noted, is that Mughal antagonism towards the Deccan sultanates—which they would annex after generations of strife—meant everything impressive about them had to be disparaged. Just as the Qutb Shahs were never acknowledged as independent rulers by the Mughal emperor, it is likely that this grand new city had to be dismissed as nothing but a vanity project that flattered “an old mistress". Such a tale, in fact, may well have found an audience even in the other Deccan sultanates, which oscillated between friendship and war with the Qutb Shahs on account of their own ever-changing dynamics. So, in the end, as Sherwani concludes, what was a “sneering sentence" from a Mughal officer grew “into a paragraph, the paragraph into a section, and the section into chapters", repeated often enough to imitate the truth.

The weight of historical evidence does seem to lie with Sherwani, but Bhagnagar continues to live in popular imagination. European travellers in the 17th century used the name, for instance. Indeed, proponents of the Bhagmati story argue that if the lady does not exist in local records, it is because she was proactively wiped out—the idea that the new capital was named after a courtesan appalled enough people for this to be expunged. Such an erasure is possible—Ferishta, who wrote in the Deccan in the lifetime of Muhammad Quli, notes that Bhagnagar was named after a “prostitute" called Bhagmati, but that the Qutb Shah felt “ashamed of his amour" and renamed the city. But the fact that Muhammad Quli could name over a dozen of his mistresses, including his five favourites in a work spanning 1,800 pages, and not mention Bhagmati at all renders the matter open to debate.

In any case, for the politician seeking to rename Hyderabad Bhagyanagar—a Sanskritized version of Bhagnagar—it may come as news that the last laugh will still be had by the ghost of the Qutb Shah. If he was forced to erase Bhagmati’s name, this might be justice done for a Hindu woman who loved a Muslim king; if she never existed at all, the Qutb Shah’s memory still triumphs. After all, he built a city that still endures, while the men seeking to wipe this out have only a pretended glory that begins and ends with waging war on the past.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets @UnamPillai

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